Snowy owls bring silent beauty to windswept Rock Prairie
Scott Weberpal never tires of searching the Rock Prairie for snowies.
A week ago, he looked twice on the same day. The first time, he saw nothing as he scanned wide-open farm fields with binoculars.
The second time, he couldn't believe his luck.
He spotted two snowy owls, huddled close to the ground, a third briefly on a power pole and a fourth sitting on top of a barn before swooping down.
“I like to call them the ghosts of the prairie because I will be driving and I won't see them," Weberpal said. "Later, I'll pass by the same place, and I'll see one.”
The brilliant white owls are tricky to spot against the snow-swept fields east of Janesville.
But Weberpal of Whitewater has trained his eyes to focus on the white bumps that move or flutter in the restless wind. Ever since the avian nomads arrived, he has quietly taken photos and kept tabs on their whereabouts.
“I love photographing wildlife,” Weberpal said, “especially wildlife that is not real common.”
The charismatic birds are seen irregularly in Wisconsin in winter. But this year, they are occurring in big numbers. The state Department of Natural Resources estimates almost 300—the highest ever recorded in the state—have flooded in since early December.
The biggest invasion in 50 years of snowy owls stretches from Wisconsin east to New England, through the Northeast and down the Atlantic Coast. At least one bird was reported as far south as Florida.
Snowy owls have a history on the Rock Prairie, which is flat and open like the tundra, where they spend their summers far north of the Arctic Circle.
“I have heard stories of local farmers seeing them going back several decades,” Weberpal said. “They are definitely noticed and appreciated by more than just wildlife enthusiasts.”
Weberpal has counted at least five east of Emerald Grove Road stretching to the Walworth County line. He regularly looks for the birds in an area bordered on the north by County A and on the south by Highway 14.
The beautifully dressed raptors are mostly white with varying amounts of brown bars and spots. Adult males usually have the most white feathers, and some old males can be pure white. Both males and females have mesmerizing yellow eyes in round faces and legs booted in white plumes. Standing almost 2 feet tall and weighing about five pounds, the snowy is North America's heaviest owl.
“Sometimes I see them way out in a field,” Weberpal said. “Other times, they will be next to the road looking for mice. They favor open farmland where they can hunt.”
In addition to taking photos, Weberpal has provided information about the local birds to Ryan Brady of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“Scott is one of a handful of people in the state who have been very helpful this winter,” Brady said. “He has been keeping detailed notes about what each bird looks like and where it hangs out. He has his finger on the pulse of what's happening in Rock County.”
Brady is stationed in Ashland County and keeps track of the owls statewide.
“This year's number of owls is way above average,” Brady said. “There probably have been this many in Wisconsin in years past, but we just didn't have all the ways we have now to count them.”
The eBird database, list serves and Facebook groups are all used to keep track of the numbers. In addition, Brady said many more people are out looking for the birds than in decades past.
Scientists are not sure why the big owls are so far from home.
Recent evidence suggests they are here because of an abundant supply of lemmings in the Arctic last summer.
“Because there were so many lemmings, snowy owls raised lots of young,” Brady said. “When all these birds dispersed and moved to new territories, thousands moved south.”
Strong and fat, the baby boomers ended up a long way from the harsh tundra.
Contrary to popular belief, the birds are not here because they are starving.
“Every owl we've trapped is fat and healthy,” said ornithologist and author Scott Weidensaul, who directs an owl migration research program in Pennsylvania. He is co-director of Project SNOWstorm, a group observing, trapping and fitting the snowy owls with solar-powered radio collars.
Avian researchers believe the unpredictable invasion of owls in the eastern United States will produce useful information about their behavior and ultimately help conservation efforts.
“Even though snowy owl irruptions have been documented for almost 200 years, very little is known about how these owls live their lives when they are down here in the south,” Weidensaul said. “Our goal is to squeeze as much information from this event as possible.”
They are doing it by tracking up to two dozen owls in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions.
Scientists believe the owls are telling us something about the ecosystem. Cornell University researchers say the big irruption may be part of natural fluctuations. Or it may be a result of an unsettled Arctic environment, where sea ice is melting and summer temperatures are rising.
In the frozen tundra, the owl's fate is often linked to the abundance of lemmings, the bird's preferred food.
In Wisconsin, the birds hunt mostly rodents and can hear them under the snow.
Depending on how early spring comes, the snowy owls east of Janesville may begin leaving in mid-March.
“If we have a late spring, the birds will linger longer,” Brady said. “Many of the birds in Wisconsin were born last summer and won't be sexually mature enough to nest this spring. But they will return to the Arctic anyhow.”
In a year when temperatures make Wisconsin feel like the Arctic, the snowy owls are a blessing and a link.
“When these birds come south, they connect us with the wilderness of the far north,” Brady said. “They are a positive thing because they hook people into birding and into learning about the threats facing such birds.”
Weberpal is not the only one who searches for the owls, with wingspans of almost 5 feet.
“Snowy owls are very majestic,” he said. “Once word gets out about them, they tend to attract quite a crowd looking for them.”
Weberpal works for the city of Whitewater, where he maintains databases of information. He looks forward to every visit to the prairie, where he grew up.
“I just love being outside,” Weberpal said. “Mix in my love of photography, and it's a perfect combination. It's exciting because I never know if I will get a good shot or go home empty handed.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.